Economy of expression

Christopher Bigsby is as qualified as any chancellor - and less harmful

July 19, 2012

I recently had to return a PhD thesis to India. The instructions asked me if I was going to send it by air, rail or runner. As you can imagine, my pen hovered over the last. The thought of “The Use of the Diphthong in Middle English Poetry”, or whatever it was called, being carried across rivers deep and mountains high was simply too attractive to resist. I had visions of publishing the route so that crowds could turn out to cheer it on.

There are sometimes problems with overseas dissertations. One I marked acknowledged God for His help (a warning, I assumed, of the consequences of failing it). In others, the definite article had either gone absent without leave or was scattered like sprinkles on ice cream. Not that I have any right to criticise other people’s use of English when I am not genetically predisposed to speak in foreign tongues. I can manage “Two beers, please”, “The same again” and “Can I have a receipt?” in a number of languages, but feel the need for more useful phrases: “Something is moving in my bed”; “Something is moving in my salad”; “I have never seen that woman before”; “This English-language menu is not in English” (at least not if “two parcels offal many cooked” or “slab of some fish with lucky source” is anything to go by). In truth, I have been in places where the menu was so encrusted with evidence of the food consumed by others that it would have been better read by someone fluent in Braille clutching an industrial-strength bottle of Imodium.

I am, indeed, baffled as to why major hotel chains in foreign countries do not telephone their local university to make sure their notices are translated accurately. One laundry list included “stew plouses”, which turned out to be “stewardesses’ blouses”. And although “pants very dirty” might be distressingly accurate, a certain discretion is surely required. Indeed, grace notes are seldom taught so that requests become instructions: “You will not smoke”; “You will leave toilet as found”; “Foreigners will queue” - or definitions: “Men do not spit”. Sometimes, though, there is a deliberate touch of humour. In the Galle Face Hotel in Sri Lanka, the staircase of which is decorated with photographs of the famous who have stayed there (including, as I recall, one or two war criminals), there is a sign which reads: “Do not smoke in bed. The ashes you find in the morning may be yours.”

On the other hand, I have had overseas PhD students whose English was better than mine and who were shocked by the fact that grammar obviously did not form part of our national curriculum. You may be aware that the government has belatedly moved to correct this by introducing the subject at GCSE level (although to make way for it, instead of teaching complete Shakespeare plays, teachers are to offer edited highlights). I confess that having left revision rather too late, I myself once passed an exam by reading only the left-hand pages of Northanger Abbey, but I still recoil at the idea of pupils baffled by someone willing to trade his kingdom for a horse for reasons none too clear to anybody. Or perhaps lessons will begin: “Previously in Hamlet...”

We do now train our students in the rudiments of teaching: speak up, be grateful to American students who can be relied upon to have an opinion whether they have read the book or not, never confess to existential despair, believe that even the irredeemable are redeemable. Until recent years lecturers were not so trained. It was somehow assumed they would pick up the necessary skills as parrots become fluent in obscenities. That has changed but, by contrast, there is, I note, no training required to become a government minister, beyond a few years at the coal face of private education and paying several hundred pounds to attend a May Ball that takes place in June.

Since the Second World War, only one of our 22 chancellors of the exchequer has had a degree in economics, though perhaps that is not such a bad thing. The one who did was Norman Lamont, who presided over Black Wednesday and the UK’s withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism while praising Augusto Pinochet (he was rewarded with a medal from the Pinochet Foundation). Some studied Classics, the Punic Wars doubtless offering a lesson or two; history (in order to study the disastrous decisions of previous chancellors); or law, whose symbol is a blind woman unable to see the scales with which she is supposedly measuring justice. PPE (philosophy, politics and economics, as Classics is Greats for those not fluent in Oxbridge talk) is the preferred raft on which chancellors sail the seas of government, so they are one-third qualified. I think I can claim at least as much and my capacity to cause damage is considerably less.

Not one of the chancellors studied literature. I have a feeling that if they had read even the left-hand pages of Little Dorrit, with its portrait of a predatory banker, or extracts from The Comedy of Errors they might have learned a thing or two.

Meanwhile, I like to think that somewhere in Asia Minor or Maharashtra, a man who perhaps once dreamed of going to the University of Oxford and then moving seamlessly, and untrained, into the British Cabinet, is even now carrying the good news of the Middle English diphthong to those in ignorance of such, even as they are busy scattering definite articles on their own dissertations secure in their gender identities because, after all, they do not spit.

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